Review: Game of Thrones Season 4, Episode 9 – The Watchers on the Wall

Night gathers, and now our watch begins - season four's feature episode gives us an extended view of the first night of battle between the Night's Watch and the Wildlings

Well, we’d be lying if we said this was the direction we thought the showrunners would take for episode nine, the event episode of the fourth season. We certainly weren’t expecting an entire episode completely dedicated to the men of the Night’s Watch. Fervently hoping for one, certainly, but expecting one? We never thought they’d have the cojones.

Considering the amount of other interesting stuff going on in Westeros at the moment, the decision was risky, but it’s paid off (big time). Going by sheer spectacle, The Watchers on the Wall is the best episode of Game of Thrones yet. The plot advances barely at all which, for an intrigue dripping behemoth like GOT, is extremely refreshing. This episode is all tense action, and barely any tense sitting around insulting each other’s grammar over Dornish wine.

Directed by Neil Marshall, who also directed Blackwater, season two’s action-filled ninth episode, The Watchers on the Wall has clearly had a lot of time, work and money thrown at it. We’ve never seen a true battle of this scale on Game of Thrones before; hundreds of Wildling extras charging out of a burning forest across a field of ice, fire arrows raining down from above, a massive axe slicing across the face of the Wall like some deadly pendulum, and let’s not forget the giants on mammoths (not that we could – they were pretty darn memorable).

But, even with all the rip-roaring exploits, this episode wasn’t devoid of feeling and story. Far from it in fact, as the way we view the battle is cleverly structured through focusing on certain characters. We follow Jon much of the time, of course, but also Sam (the real heart of the episode), and even occasionally Alliser Thorne. The forgotten bit players of the Night’s Watch also get a look in; unfortunate Pyp, stalwart Grenn, and the ever pithy Dolorous Edd (we’d be happy to fight off a Wildling onslaught under his command any day).

With so many areas of action all going on at once (behind the Wall, in front of the Wall, inside Castle Black, on top of the Wall, underneath the Wall, et cetera), it’s the movements of the characters that keep it all connected in the viewer’s mind. Only a few named characters actually stay where they are for the duration of the battle; the rest we follow around, which gives us a comprehensive view of the whole shebang.

We particularly enjoyed the way that everybody from Ser Alliser on down ended up leaving the top of proceedings, walking off while blithely saying ‘You have the Wall’ to the next man down the chain of command (reminiscent of Star Trek’s ‘take the con’), until we were left with Dolorous Edd ordering the remaining men to ‘rain fire’ on the Wildlings.

In amongst all the fire and death, there are a few titbits of plot to be had. Sam learns that Gilly and baby Sam are alive and well, and seems to find a strengthened resolve. Ygritte and Jon share a pretty tender last moment together, which the episode managed to build to nicely without having to revolve around. But probably the most interesting morsel (from an overall standpoint, anyway) is that during Sam and Maester Aemon’s little chinwag in the library, we’re again reminded of who Maester Aemon really is (or was) – Aemon Targaryen, a serious contender (once upon a time) for the title of true king of Westeros. We can’t help feeling that this little nugget will become significant somewhere along the line – not crucial perhaps, but definitely significant.

Well, the Night’s Watch have lived to fight another day, and we’re down to one more episode for this season of GOT. Is Tyrion going to get to keep his head? Are we even going to get to find out, or are they going to make us wait a year for season five? Night gathers, and now our watch begins.

Best Kill: This week’s award has to go to the giant whose arrow speared that unfortunate Brother all the way from the top of the wall to the ground on the other side

Best Scene: Grenn’s last stand at the gate (any scene that includes a recitation of the Night’s Watch oath is a winner in our book; this one was particularly brilliant)

Best Line: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.” – Ygritte

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